Vietnamese church in land dispute dating back to 1975

Province wants to build a new school but parishioners say the land belongs to their church.
By RFA Vietnamese Service
2024.05.15
Vietnamese church in land dispute dating back to 1975 Thanh Hai parishioners protested local authorities' plan to build schools on land borrowed from Thanh Hai church, May 8, 2024.
Năm Chiếc Bánh vía YouTube

Parishioners of a Catholic church in southern Vietnam are protesting the local government’s plan to build a school on land that they say belongs to the church, igniting a dispute that dates back to 1975, the parishioners told Radio Free Asia.

Two school buildings at the Thanh Hai Church in Thanh Hai ward, Phan Thiet city, Binh Thuan province were lent to the government in 1975 to be used as public schools. Now the government plans to return one of the buildings to the church and will raze the other to build a more modern 10-classroom school building.

Similar land disputes between local governments and religious institutions regarding land use are very common in Vietnam. 

Key to the Thanh Hai dispute is that the authorities are not officially using the term “return” to describe the process, implying that the land does not belong to the church. The parishioners, however, oppose the plan for the new school, saying they want all of the land returned to them.

When the province began measuring the land surrounding the schools on May 8, hundreds of parishioners came to the churchyard to stop them.

“We demanded that the authorities stop measuring the land of the two educational facilities that used to be the parish’s Catholic primary and middle schools,” a member of the church’s Pastoral Council, who like all unnamed sources in this report requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA Vietnamese.

He said that the council told the local authorities not to take action on church land without prior notification, and since then nothing has happened at the site.

RFA contacted Thanh Hai People’s Committee for more information about the incident, but a staff member who answered the phone said the information should be requested in person, directly to the leaders of the ward

“No one, from the authorities to the priests, can take away our land,” she said. “[This is] the land our parents put a lot of effort and hard work to claim since they migrated to the South.”

Claim rooted in history

The Thanh Hai Parish was established in 1955 and its first parishioners were those who migrated south from the northern provinces of Thanh Hoa, Hai Phong, and Quang Binh following the signing of the Geneva Accords, which divided Vietnam into the communist North and anti-communist South.

Today there are 8,000 parishioners and they make up 75% of the population in Thanh Hai ward, according to a 2015 survey. 

Before the North defeated the South and unified Vietnam in 1975, the schools on the church land were run by the parish and only the children of parishioners could attend. But that changed when the new government requisitioned the schools and ordered that they serve all children in the ward.

ENG_VTN THANH HAI_05142024.2.jpg
Thanh Hai parishioners protested local authorities' plan to build schools on land borrowed from Thanh Hai church, May 8, 2024. (Năm Chiếc Bánh vía YouTube)

Due to the increasing number of parishioners in recent years, the parish has found it necessary to build some additional facilities, including a parking area, a pastoral service house, and a place for children and young people’s religious activities. As a result, in 2014, the parish started to request the authorities to return the two schools to them.

According to a copy of the document named “1996 Land Use Declaration,” the Thanh Hai Parish, represented by Priest Vu Ngoc Dang, lent the local authority the school facilities with a total area of 6,136.8 square meters (1.5 acres). The document was signed and sealed by the then Chairman of Thanh Hai Ward People’s Committee.

However, according to a document posted on the Binh Thuan province website, authorities said that the province had never borrowed the parish’s land to house the two schools.

They say the establishment of the two schools followed Circular No. 409 of the People's Revolutionary Committee of the Middle Central Region, which said that "starting from the school year 1975-1976, all types of private schools (run by individuals, and religious and social organizations) will be converted into public schools." 

‘Land extension’

When the parishioners learned of the plan on Feb. 16, they gathered at the Episcopal See to protest. Video footage of the incident shows a woman named Toan explaining why she feels so strongly about the dispute. 

The plan to return one building to the church and to build the new school on the site of the other building was announced in a governmental meeting on March 1. All references to returning the land to the church were avoided, in favor of the term “land extension.” 

According to the pastoral council member, the Phan Thiet Episcopal See and the Thanh Hai Parish priest agreed with the plan, but the parishioners disagreed, because they want to get back all the land that their parents and grandparents lent to the government nearly 70 years ago.

RFA attempted to contact Duong Nguyen Kha, the priest of Thanh Hai Parish for comment, but he did not respond. The Phan Thiet Episcopal See also did not respond to email queries.

Translated by Chau Vu. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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